Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: January 2010

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As island of piping

The curse of many pipers, especially many new pipers, is finding a good instructor. It’s absolutely essential for beginners to have an instructor, and even the best pipers will benefit from a lesson from time to time. Many times, however, new pipers are stymied by their location, and find themselves in the middle of a blank spot on the piping map.

This was one of my concerns when I moved to Maine. The state is relatively large geographically but rather sparsely populated, and where there are few people there tend to be even fewer pipers. As it turns out there are a few high level solo players in the state (I know of four grade 1 pipers in Maine and another in Connecticut who was originally from Augusta), but they’re pretty spread out, and the three who play with a band travel at least as far as Massachusetts to do so.

Having an instructor nearby is a luxury that I took for granted when I lived Pittsburgh and Maryland, never having to drive more than about 20 minutes to meet my instructor. Now, however, getting a lesson is a daylong affair: it involves driving two and a half hours through three states, a two hour lesson, then a return trip.

Because the time involved and my schedule, I’m able to have a lesson every few months, which means that most of the work needs to be done on my own. Finding a time and place to practice is a bit difficult, with thirty teenage boys living within a few yards of my door and a full teaching job.

This piping thing is not for the faint of heart.

On pipers and politics, part II

I recently made a post about pipe band politics in response to a thread that had been posted in a bagpipe forum. The person who started the thread listed his or her grievances against the current head of a band and how he has been attempting to manipulate and control the band.

After some discussions with several people I believe that I should make some clarifications regarding my statements.

First, the tone of my previous post implies that I am sympathetic to the person who started the discussion thread, thought it was not explicitly stated (though perhaps I was when I wrote the post). As I’ve thought about it the past few days, however, I am revising my stance to “neutral.”

I call myself a skeptic, which means I reserve judgment on certain topics until I have heard evidence from both sides of a debate. I don’t suggest that the events described accusations made in the thread were intentionally fallacious, but they do represent only one point of view, and are an emotional response from one individual. In other words, it is just hearsay with nothing to support the claims made.

My post was intended to be about politics in the piping world in general, but it was swayed by the situation at hand because I had recently read about it.

I would like to add the following comment about piping politics in general, and finish with the same comments that closed my previous post:

I think it’s extremely sad that politics has crept into the piping world. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that some people think they know better than the people who actually do know better, and therefore they see it as their right to call the shots. This isn’t limited to piping, of course, but it is certainly widespread. I know of several bands that have dissolved because of egos and control issues, and several gifted musicians who have turned their back on the piping community because of the petty politics among its members. Friendships have been destroyed, people have become jaded, and people have come to hate the piping world because of the people involved in it.

My first experience with a competition band was ideal: no egos in the band, no cliques, no power struggles. Just music and friendship. Everyone in the band got along and enjoyed the company of the others, and we enjoyed playing music together and hanging out together. We were serious about playing good music, but at the same time realized that is was supposed to be fun. The three years I played with Macdonald Pipe Band in Pittsburgh were a lot of fun, and it provided the catalyst for  my solo competition career, as well as my interest in pipes turning into an obsession. Some of my best friends were made in that band, and I miss them quite a bit.

Every pipe band I associate with in the future will be compared to my time with Macdonald, and I’m afraid nothing will be as good. Part of that I’m sure is that it was my first experience and I had nothing else to compare it to, but it was also a lot of fun.

On geekiness

This weekend I’ve taken two of my students (from school, not piping students) to participate in a chess tournament. I’ve never been to one before, and it’s been interesting to see what’s involved.

As the first round of games came to an end and players started collecting in the lobby of the hotel, I was reminded of a joke, a shaggy dog story, with the punchline being something about “chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.” I’ll wait for the groans to subside before I continue.

I thought several times about how many of the players appear to be pretty nerdy, since all they seemed to talk about was chess: strategies, players, situations they had encountered in games. After a while though I realized I don’t have any right to judge them for that.

I am indeed obsessed with bagpipes, but it doesn’t consume my being, and I am quite capable of carrying on a conversation with both pipers non-pipers about non-piping topics. No really, I am. But when there’s a bunch of pipers at a piping event, like a highland games or workshop, all we talk about is bagpipes.

Just like the chess nuts, pipers have a common connection, so it’s what we talk about when we get together. I retract my former comments about them being nerds and accept that they have the same level of devotion to a hobby that I have.

As they say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (bad pun on that cliche here). Or, as I prefer to say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t walk around naked.

On pipers and politics

**Update** Response to this post can be found here.

Not the kind of politics you see on the news, but rather the politics of the piping world. A thread on a bagpipe forum was brought to my attention today, and it makes for a depressing read. The title of the thread is a good indication of the content: “How to destroy a pipe band in 3 easy steps.”

The person who started the thread talks about his or her experiences with a competition pipe band and the squabbling and power struggles between the two top-level pipers in charge. Or more accurately, between the current controlling and manipulative leader and the former leader whom everyone liked and just wanted to play bagpipes.

I’ve heard a lot about this sort of thing, and it’s really pretty disgusting. This situation is even more disgusting because I know the two pipers involved and am familiar with the two bands mentioned. It makes me sad, but I can’t say that I’m surprised.

Unfortunately some people feel the need to be in control of things, and pipe bands offer a great way for the small time control freak to get in on the action. Many pipers are pretty laid back and mild-mannered, so when a strong personality comes into the picture he or she often sees an opportunity to be in charge. Bands are almost entirely volunteer, and the stakes are very low. Ruining a pipe band doesn’t destroy one’s professional or political career, so there’s not really much at stake, except the happiness of the people who liked things the way they were. The people involved in that sort of experience can destroy friendships and make people hate the piping community they loved so much before. I know of some very talented and passionate former members of the piping community who are now out of it because of the politics.

My first experience with a competition band was ideal: no egos in the band, no cliques, no power struggles. Just music and friendship. Everyone in the band got along and enjoyed the company of the others, and we enjoyed playing music together and hanging out together. We were serious about playing good music, but at the same time realized that is was supposed to be fun. The three years I played with Macdonald Pipe Band in Pittsburgh were a lot of fun, and it provided the catalyst for  my solo competition career, as well as my interest in pipes turning into an obsession. Some of my best friends were made in that band, and I miss them quite a bit.

Every pipe band I associate with in the future will be compared to my time with Macdonald, and I’m afraid nothing will be as good. Part of that I’m sure is that it was my first experience and I had nothing else to compare it to, but it was also a lot of fun.

Here’s to hoping that the situation works out favorably for those who liked things the way they were.

Strides in synthetic chanter reeds

Traditional cane chanter reed

The bagpipe chanter is the most important part of the sound, and also among the most difficult parts of the instrument to get in tune, and get to stay in tune. The reeds are very fickle because they’re made of cane: it is able to absorb moisture, thus changing the density of the cane and therefore the way it vibrates. This changes the pitch and tone; a wet chanter reed will be flat and dull, whereas a completely dry one will be very shrill and tend to chirp. Thus out of tune pipes can be caused by conditions outside the piper’s control: temperature and humidity in the outside air, and probably the biggest factor, which is amount of playing time. The reed has to be played to get it to settle in to its pitch, and once it’s there it will go out of tune as soon as it’s allowed to dry out and cool down. Putting down the pipes for even a minute or so is enough to require three or four minutes of additional playing to get it back to the sweet spot.

There have been some attempts to make a synthetic chanter reed that is unaffected by these factors, and they have been successful to a point. The biggest drawback has been the sound, which is usually thin, shrill, and raspy; in short, it sounds like it comes from a plastic reed.

I met a piper who played a synthetic reed, and it was perfect for his purposes. He doesn’t play competitions and only occasionally plays with other pipers, but his primary performances are with another musician at a local Irish pub on Friday nights. He primarily plays other instruments (guitar, banjo, harmonica, tin whistle), but when he plays the pipes for a song he needs to be able to pick them up and have them ready to go. Playing in a noisy bar full of non-pipers the sweetness of the chanter isn’t really an issue, so it works well for his purposes.


McLaren synthetic chanter reed

Malcolm McLaren of Brisbane, Australia has developed a new reed that apparently is leaps and bounds ahead of previous synthetic reeds, though to be fair my only assessment is based on the video below. However it seems to have a decent sound for a synthetic reed, and would be well-suited to playing gigs where there is some elapsed time between tuning and performing. He specifically says it’s not intended to replace cane reeds for competition, although the sound is good enough that some people are using it for competitions.

I’m intrigued, and I might try one out. They’re fairly pricey though, so while I have a cane reed that does pretty well for me I’m not in a rush to order one just yet.

Keydet Piper’s Spring Competition Schedule

As I’ve been thinking about which games I’ll be attending this year, I’ve come up with a tentative list. As of now, this is what my schedule looks like.

March 27: Back Bay Solo Piping Contest, Boston, MA. Organized by my friend John Daggett, the Back Bay Contest is an indoor contest early in the season that is offering competitions in all amateur levels. It will be my first solo competition in grade 1, and I encourage other pipers to check it out. That same day is also the annual spring concert of the Stuart Highlanders Pipe Band, the EUSPBA’s new grade 2 band. Make a day of it: solos in the morning, band concert in the evening.

April 10: NHSSA Indoor Scottish Arts Festival, Concord, NH. I haven’t decided if I’ll be playing at this contest, but we’ll see how things are going once the entry form goes up. This has traditionally been the start of the season in New England, and the few years that I have attended there have been quite a lot of competitors. There are professional competitions this year for the first time, and they take place on Friday evening, with the amateur and bands competitions on Saturday. Also Saturday evening is a recital featuring the awesome piping prowess of Alasdair Gillies and the grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band from Albany, NY.

April 24: Celtic Festival of Southern Maryland, Prince Frederick, MD. This is usually the first competition of the season in the mid-Atlantic region, and it will be my first competition with MacMillan Pipe Band. I doubt I’ll be playing solos, but I’ll be there for sure. The grade 3 band contest is MSR.

May 15: Colonial Highland Gathering, Fair Hill, MD. The next band competition (medley this time), and I probably won’t be playing solos again. Maybe I will though; we’ll see how things are going.

That’s all I have on the schedule for now, though it is certainly subject to change. Check back for updates.

Go long!

I’ve commented before about the stunning lack of variety in tune selection for top level band MSR contests, and I’m hopping up on a different but related soap box this time. I will again visit the 2009 World Pipe Band Championship, this time the MSR from the grade 1 final round.

Just to recap the rules, the MSR set must consist of a 2/4 march, strathspey, and reel played as a set. Each tune must be at least four parts, and the performance must start with a three pace drum roll, not contain harmonies or reprises, and end promptly on the last note of the reel. In a grade 1 band contest each band must submit two sets, and a draw at the line determines which they are to play. It’s really a pretty esoteric competition and a non-piper will probably find it difficult to sit through more than just a few bands at a time.

In listening to the CD from this year, the majority of bands played tunes longer than the required four parts, which perhaps contributes to the limited repertoire. Here’s a listing of the bands in order of final placing in the MSR event and their selected tunes. I’ve marked tunes with six parts in red and tunes with eight parts in green.

  1. Simon Fraser University: The Highland Wedding / Blair Drummond / John Morrison of Assynt House
  2. Field Marshal Montgomery: The Highland Wedding / Blair Drummond / Pretty Marion
  3. St Laurence O’Toole: The Highland Wedding / Atholl Cummers / McAllister’s Dirk
  4. Strathclyde Police: Donald Cameron / Cameronian Rant / Mrs MacPherson of Inveran
  5. The House of Edgar Shotts & Dykehead: Balmoral Highlanders / Susan MacLeod / McAllister’s Dirk
  6. Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia: Pipe Major Tom McAllister / Susan MacLeod / John Morrison of Assynt House
  7. Scottish Power: Angus Campbell’s Farewell to Stirling / Tulloch Castle / John Morrison of Assynt House
  8. Fife Constabulary: The Highland Wedding / Susan MacLeod / Mrs MacPherson of Inveran
  9. Robert Wiseman Dairies Vale of Atholl: Colin Thomson / Atholl Cummers / Mrs MacPherson of Inveran
  10. Cullybackey: The Clan Macrae Society / Susan MacLeod / John MacKechnie
  11. Manawatu Scottish: The Clan Macrae Society / Atholl Cummers / McAllister’s Dirk
  12. Ballycoan: The Clan Macrae Society / Susan MacLeod / John MacKechnie
  13. Dowco Triumph Street: The Highland Wedding / Maggie Cameron / Pretty Marion
  14. Australia Highlanders: Colin Thomson / Blair Drummond / John Morrison of Assynt House

As you can see, there’s not much black text in there. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Three bands played four part marches, and only two different tunes: Colin Thomson and Angus Campbell’s Farewell to Stirling.
  • Seven bands played four part strathspeys, but only three different tunes: Maggie Cameron, Susan MacLeod, Tulloch Castle.
  • No band played a four part reel.
  • Five bands (including those who placed first through fourth) played no tune shorter than six parts.

I don’t know if it’s a trend, a fad, or a trendy fad, but I really don’t like it. There are a ton of great tunes out there, and bands rule out so many of them by limiting themselves only to longer tunes. Solo competitions, even at the top level, feature a much higher percentage of four parted tunes, although the six parted reels are very prevalent.

I’d like to see a grade 1 band be gutsy enough to buck the trend and play some shorter, but not necessarily smaller, tunes.

Protect yourself from the pipes

Most pipers I know wear ear plugs when playing, and with good reason. The most common reaction I get to the pipes is people saying “Wow, that’s loud!” My physics class measured my pipes at 105 decibels at a distance of 1 meter (arm’s length for the metrically challenged), and prolonged exposure to sounds like that is a good way to ruin one’s hearing.

I saw this and thought it pretty amusing: earrings that are earplugs.

I’d be really excited if I wore earrings, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who could find a use for them. I am a bit upset that bagpipes are not included in the list of uses, though.

2010 Resolution: Make no New Year’s Resolutions

Every blog I follow has had a post reflecting on 2009 and/or looking ahead to 2010, so why should this blog be any different? I’ll stay away from the retrospective and stick to the future, because the past can’t be changed and it doesn’t help to dwell on it after extracting its lessons.

I stopped making New Year resolutions a long time ago, because in all honesty I usually forget them by February. In addition to usually being pretty vague (“I’m going to get more exercise and procrastinate less”) and therefore difficult to assess at the end of the year, they’re pretty generic and more often than not go forgotten and unaccomplished. So I’ve stopped making them.

Instead, I come up with a list of things I want to do during the year. They’re not necessarily for personal edification, just things I want to do. They’re better than your standard resolution because it’s a lot easier to decide if they were accomplished: like a checklist, it’s either done or it isn’t.

So here’s my list for 2010, in no particular order. Some are related to piping, some not, but all stuff I want to do.

  1. Learn two new piobaireachds. I don’t have tunes in mind, but since I play several amach tunes I would like to learn at least one new fosgailte tune and maybe another brebach. I will consult the silver medal list to see what’s recommended.
  2. Play one new light music tune of each type in competition. I know enough tunes to be able to play in grade 1 solos, but learning more is the way to get better. Proposed tunes to learn: The Braes of Castle Grant (2/4 march), Cabar Feidh (strathspey), Dolina MacKay (reel), Joe McGann’s Fiddle (hornpipe), Donald Cameron’s Powder Horn (jig), Ellenorr (6/8 march).
  3. Compete with a grade 3 band. I’ve played in grade 4 and 5 band contests, and I’m ready for more of a challenge. Although I’ve been invited to play with a grade 2 and a grade 1 band, I don’t have the time to put into keeping those repertoires up to that level . A grade 3 band is a level that will challenge me to learn new material, and it’s the most practical level for me to be a distance player. Look out MacMillan, here I come.
  4. Restart my academic career. This is my fifth year teaching high school, and it’s fun and all, but it’s more fun to be a student. More details will follow as they become available.
  5. Learn to juggle. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and this is as good a time as any to get started. K and I got a juggling lesson from a very cool shop on New Year’s Eve and walked away with a set of juggling objects. Mine are very cool and have pirates on them. Yarr mateys